Miami-Dade School Board attorney finalist Walter Harvey did not grow up in Jacksonville with dreams of becoming a lawyer.
His involvement with a high school version of the public speaking club Toastmasters led him to win a legal debate competition, whetting his appetite for law.
Intrigued but not sold, Harvey saw his second encounter with the legal profession convince him that he not only had the intellect required to become a successful attorney, but also the drive.
It was during his undergraduate studies at University of California San Diego – where he initially planned to major in math or biology – that a job as a “gopher” at a law firm exposed him to the life of an attorney. So smitten was he with the law that he ended up earning a scholarship during his sophomore year after a retired judge got wind of his outstanding grades and interest in pursuing a legal career.
The same judge, William Yale, a former Ronald Reagan California state court appointee, tried unsuccessfully to keep Harvey in California to attend one if its law schools, but lost out to Harvard University’s Law School, where Harvey received his law degree in 1995.
Harvey, 44, of Miami Shores, is now on the short list of candidates for the school board attorney post.
The Miami-Dade School Board last month could not break a tie in the selection process. Harvey and former Key West City Attorney Robert Tischenkel tied as the top two finalists with four votes each.
Board Member Renier Diaz de la Portilla recused himself from the selection process, withholding what would have been a deciding vote. De la Portilla and Harvey both worked for GrayRobinson, P.A. Since the vote, De la Portilla left GrayRobinson, P.A. and opened his own law firm.
Board Member Ana Rivas Logan and board members Wilbert “Tee” Holloway, Solomon Stinson and Martin Karp voted for Harvey.
Lawrence Feldman, Marta Perez, Perla Tabares Hantman and Agustin J. Barrera voted for Tischenkel.
Since they made no decision, board members agreed to essentially re-start the process with Harvey and Tischenkel being placed on the “hot list” for further consideration.
Harvey, a jazz enthusiast who is an avid reader of historical books, started his career in the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s office as an assistant county attorney. There, he said, a young person fresh out of law school can gain valuable litigation experience.
His strategy worked. After honing his skills in the courtroom, Harvey went into private practice, working his way up to partner at the prestigious Steel, Hector & Davis law firm. He was later hired at the powerhouse GrayRobinson, P.A., where he is a shareholder.
According to Tia Harvey, his wife of five years, “What you see is what you get.”
The soft-spoken gentleman has developed a reputation for being an honest, well-respected attorney with a strong commitment to his community; a commitment informed by his own receipt of support and guidance from mentors interested in his development.
Harvey counts his college professor, the late Dr. Charles Thomas, as one of those mentors, as well as celebrated Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree.
“Each time I see him, it’s like an old friend,” he said of Ogletree.
It’s even more remarkable, he said, because although he attended several seminars led by Ogletree, Harvey never took any of his classes.
Public service is not an option, Harvey said, but an obligation that he takes very seriously. He is a former chairman of the Urban League of Greater Miami, a member of the Lawyers for Children’s regional advisory board and – as a member of the Public Health Trust – was in charge of the national search committee to name Jackson Health System’s new chief executive.
Anthony Bush has known Harvey since meeting him on the school bus in the seventh grade in Jacksonville.
“We just started talking and…we hit it off from the beginning,” Bush said.
What began as an easy friendship has blossomed into a 30-plus-year connection that Bush regards as special.
“He’s one of my best buddies in the world,” the Miami teacher said of his friendship with Harvey, who he said doesn’t fit the mold of a typical lawyer.
“You have some lawyers that are really sharp, really, really competent professionally, but they’re not nice people. He happens to be a nice person also as well as competent.”
When asked to list three words to describe his friend, whom he calls a “great family man,” Bush chose, “caring, honest and thorough.”
Bush was also in Harvey’s wedding a few years ago, a culmination of a four-year courtship and beachside proposal to Tia on the rooftop of the Eden Roc hotel in Miami Beach, complete with a small orchestra.
“He brings me flowers almost every Friday,” Tia said of her husband.
The couple has a three-year-old son, Ian.
Strong family ties are what lured him to the West Coast, Harvey explained; and California’s excellent and highly affordable colleges kept him there. Harvey said he moved in with his sister and her family to help care for her after she was diagnosed with leukemia. When she returned to the East Coast, Harvey remained in California to continue his education.
Sadly, his sister died from leukemia in 1988.
His need to work to pay for his college expenses exposed Harvey to a multitude of career options, including law firm “gopher,” janitorial work, the post office, teaching, math tutoring and retail. Although teaching at an inner-city high school was a close second, Harvey said none of the jobs affected him the way his employment at the law firm did.
The scholarship afforded Harvey an opportunity to “work less and study more,” resulting in grades and LSAT scores worthy of acceptance into an Ivy League law school.
After a decade in private practice, he’s ready to move into the public arena, a switch that seems a natural progression for this son of a retired schoolteacher. Harvey’s mother, Annie Harvey, died over the 2008 holidays. Well-known in the Jacksonville area, the educator had a reputation for helping others, especially the downtrodden.
“If she was here, she would be pleased with [his making it into the final rounds of consideration],” Walter said of his late mother.
Attorney George Knox, a highly regarded legal powerhouse himself, said Harvey is extremely well-qualified for the position.
“I’ve known him for more than ten years and I have tracked his career both with law firms that he’s worked in and his civic involvement. The record is very clear that he’s a well-rounded, capable and respected attorney.”
Knox said politics will probably be a factor in the selection process.
“Often decisions that are made by political bodies don’t have a whole lot to do with the merit of the candidates that they are considering,” the former city attorney said.
Because he is not familiar with the other candidates, Knox limited his comments to Harvey, who, out of an original field of 52 applicants, tied with Tischenkel in the May 20 school board vote to select a new attorney.
“On paper, it would be very easy to see that Mr. Harvey is imminently qualified to occupy the position, without disparaging the qualifications of anyone else that might be seeking the position.”
His qualifications and civic involvement aside, Knox said Harvey’s absence from the political arena is an asset.
“He’s never been identified as a political player. He is even-handed and dispassionate and fair in his decision making. I’ve never heard anything to the contrary,” Knox said, adding, “Responsibility for guiding the school board is one that must be taken very seriously and de-politicized to the maximum extent possible.”
Photo: Walter Harvey